Food insecurity for school-aged children reaches its most acute point just when those students should be relaxing and enjoying a break – summer time. Each year when schools let out, millions of children across the U.S. are left without the subsidized breakfast and lunch programs that provide them with the nutritious and filling foods that are vital building blocks for their physical and cognitive development. This summer gap can further disadvantage lower-income students from their peers.
The Food Research & Action Center reported in 2016 that of the roughly 21.5 million income-eligible students, less than 3.6 million were served by the national summer nutrition programs in the summer of 2015. This means that based on 2014-15 school-year food program participation rates, only 16 out of every 100 students are continuing to get this valuable service during the summer months.
The reasons for this breakdown in continued food coverage for this vulnerable population are diverse, and a persistent challenge of social determinants that we must work to overcome.
The two federal programs that provide the majority of summer lunch programs for lower-income students are the Summer Food Service Program and the National Summer Lunch Program. In the summer, these programs can partner with a variety of community organizations and municipal programs to provide meals in various locations. Still, for every 100 school lunch programs, there are only 34 summer sites.
The shortage of summer sites is largely due to a federal threshold that only allows funding in communities that have at least 50% eligibility among their school-aged population. That high bar places many communities at a disadvantage, especially those in more rural and suburban areas. Further compounding the problem is retention of sites. Many well-intentioned organizations struggle with the financial viability of summer meal programs and have to abandon the service after the first or second season of participation.
Even in communities with well-established summer food programs, participation may not be an option for all due to lacking transportation. Unlike during the school year, buses are often unavailable to get students to the program sites in the summer. Also, the students’ household or support network may not have a reliable vehicle. Or the adults are balancing numerous jobs and do not have the time to get a child to and from a site in the middle of the day. If walking to a nearby site is an option, guardians must also consider the safety of the area before allowing the child to make the trip on their own.
Programs in a number of states and communities are attempting to overcome these barriers in innovative ways. In 2011, Oregon launched the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program. The program is modeled on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and gives about $30 per eligible child per month to families through the summer break. With that added money, families can increase their grocery shopping to make up for the meals normally provided at school. As of the summer of 2016, the Summer EBT program had been expanded to seven additional states.
In Cincinnati, the non-profit, Childhood Food Solutions, takes a very targeted approach to supplementing meals for lower-income students. Since 2005, the program has delivered food directly to families and does so toward the end of the month when SNAP benefits are most likely running out. CFS’s trucks stop at the housing and neighborhood sites most accessible to those most in need. The very concentrated effort is believed to have a positive impact on infant mortality and preterm birth rates dropping in the area and reading and math scores on the rise at local schools.
To combat the issue of summertime food insecurity, we must take a more comprehensive approach to support and expand innovative solutions that show promise. There’s too much at stake with the futures of this vulnerable population to take a summer break that can leave them struggling to keep up. At Healthify, we believe that all students should return to classes in the fall hungry and thirsty only for learning and personal growth.